Bigwala: Busoga's royal music, dance
The moment we start performing, this whole yard will be filled with spectators wanting to have a glimpse of the performa ...
- Bigwala used to be a popular music and dance for the Basoga, but because of modernisation and the abolition of kingdoms in the 1960s, it is on the verge of extinction unless something is done to salvage it.
By Owen Wagabaza
The moment we start performing, this whole yard will be filled with spectators wanting to have a glimpse of the performance,” James Lugolore, a Bigwala player, tells me as he assembles and fine-tunes his instruments.
And a few minutes into the performance, the whole of Butongole village in Busembatya, Iganga district, is gathered in Lugolere’s home, singing along and dancing to Mprerekera omwana womulembe, a popular Bigwala song.
The singers and dancers move in circular formation around the five drummers, swaying their waists gently and raising their hands to the rhythm of music.
Women and children join the Bigwala players, dancing and ululating in ecstasy as the men shake and nod their heads rhythmically. Passersby stop and join the fray; the whole village is on a standstill. It is Bigwala in the mix, Busoga’s royal music.
WHAT IS BIGWALA?
The ensemble of instruments that make the Bigwala set
Bigwala dates way back to the 18th century. “It was very popular then, women used to be battered by their husbands for coming back home late after watching Bigwala in the evenings,” Samuel Mugabi, one of the Bigwala players says. Gabula Nadiope, the then chief of Bugabula chiefdom, was a big fan of Bigwala music.
“Bigwala music was played in his palace to entertain guests and welcome visitors,” says James Isabirye, a music researcher and lecturer at the department of performing arts, Kyambogo University.
It is not surprising, therefore, that in the early 20th century, after the amalgamation of the 11 chiefdoms to form Busoga Kingdom, Bigwala was adopted as a royal music and dance and it has since been a significant cultural practice in Busoga region.
“Its presence is a must during royal functions. During funerals, for example, the people who carry the king’s body are led by Bigwala players,” says Isabirye.
Lugolore, the Bigwala group leader, concurs with Isabirye. He says in 2008, they performed at the funeral of the late Kyabazinga, Wako Muloki, before he was laid to rest.
Furthermore, Bigwala music addresses issues like leadership, marriage, acceptable social norms and practices. It also plays a significant role of uniting people.
HOW BIGWALA IS PERFORMED
Bigwala is a Kisoga word for a type of gourd trumpets and by extension, the performance at which they are used. In Bigwala music, gourd trumpets are the major musical instruments.
The ensemble is made up of five or more monotone gourd trumpets that are blown in combination to produce a song, accompanied by a specific dance.
A typical performance begins with one trumpet, then other trumpet players join in, followed by drum players, singers and dancers in that order. Each trumpet piece has an open larger end with the mouth piece on the small end. The player blows air into the gourd to produce the sound.
The instruments are named according to size and role. The biggest trumpet produces the deepest pitch and alerts the others about the impending performance. The second biggest starts the song and the third strikes repeatedly. The second smallest gourd is named after the leopard while the smallest is named after the calf.
“All trumpets must be played to realise a song and five drums are played to add rhythm to the music,” Lugolore says, adding that the drums include a big conical drum, a long drum with monitor lizard skin, a short drum with an open end covered with lizard skin, a medium size and small conical drum.
Each drum plays a specific role in the set. All conical drums are covered with cow hide and played with sticks, while the ones covered with lizard skin are played with hands only.
A HERITAGE IN NEED OF RESCUE
Unfortunately, Bigwala music is on the verge of extinction if nothing is done to salvage it. Currently, it is only played in two neighbouring villages of Bukakaire and Butongole in Busembatya, Iganga district. And worse still, not many people in these villages can play Bigwala music.
In fact, there are only three surviving master bearers who inherited the making, playing, and dancing skills from their forefathers. Of the three, Ahamada Kakaire, 88, is seriously ill and bedridden, leaving the mantle to James Lugolore, 78, and Sulaiti Dongo, 79.
Irene Nabirye, a resident of Butongole village, attributes Bigwala’s declining favour among the masses to western influence and the 1966 abolition of kingdoms by former president Milton Obote. However, the National Council of Forklorists in Uganda (NACOFU) has set up measures to save and promote Bigwala music in Busoga region.
James Isabirye, the executive secretary of NACOFU, says apart from improving on Bigwala’s visibility through performing regularly at social functions, they are also encouraging people to grow gourd trumpets to increase on their availability. He says they are also encouraging young people to learn how to play Bigwala music.
“Because gourd trumpets are rare and delicate, children are using pawpaw stalks to learn how to play Bigwala,” Isabirye says. Indeed, Brian Muto, 12, and George Gulere, 14, are some of the Bigwala troupe members in Butongole village. They have also encouraged discussions with stakeholders on how to save and revive Bigwala music.
In December last year, Bigwala music, together with three other cultural practices from Botswana, Indonesia and Kyrgyzstan, were inscribed by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding” making it the second successful nomination in our country’s history after barkcloth making.
The surviving master bearers are not willing to die without sharing their cherished Bigwala skills. They have embarked on a training programme, training children during holidays and on weekends on how to play and dance to Bigwala music. Unfortunately, lack of resources is hindering the progress.